All 50 states have anti-bullying, zero tolerance legislation in place that require an immediate response to bullying when identified. Although zero tolerance sounds formidable and often mandates punitive discipline, in practice it accomplishes very little and typically makes matters worse. Punitive discipline such as suspension and expulsion often disproportionately impact students of low income, hispanics and students of color who may be better served by intervention, not punishment. And long drawn out bullying investigations mandated by the law are often handled by poorly trained staff who further traumatize the victim and "out" the bullied student as a stool pigeon. The bullied student is then further ostracized within the larger community. Because zero tolerance policies lack intelligent, protective, productive and creative implementation, bullied students often live in fear of their tormentors AND a system that then exacerbates their situation and damages them further. Unless a case of bullying is egregious with threats to life and property (in which case you don't need zero tolerance, you need a call to the police), zero tolerance often results in a slap on the wrist for those doing the bullying, and greater trauma for the victim.
The truth is, zero tolerance is a rigid, poorly thought out response because it fails to address bullying effectively. And this makes it seriously flawed. Zero tolerance does not help the bully, or those being bullied. It suffers from uneven and biased application. It suffers from a failure to arm the right individuals with the right therapeutic and behavioral tools to deal with complex peer situations. It does not recognize the unique pyramids of social power that exist in many schools and drive bullying behavior. Zero tolerance policies may be lorded over students as strict and uncompromising, but they lack real power. And the kids know it. Because zero tolerance requires disciplinary action like school suspension or a lame investigation, the bullying behavior often resurfaces, but under the radar in a new form. There's no policy against exclusion, indignities, or hostile slights. You can't legislate who's in and who's out. You can't legislate the act of intentionally excluding a child from what goes on socially outside of school. You can't legislate manipulation and ostracization. But this is where, when and how bullies do their best work.
Although zero tolerance for bullying may be stated policy, it can be pure window dressing for a school. This is because it often masks the most disturbing relationship between a school and bullying: that a majority of school staff tolerate the daily psychological aggression and abuse practiced by their students as just the natural goings on of school life; especially in middle and high school. The level of tolerance school staff demonstrate in their school community contributes to, and empowers bullies. The prejudices and biases they bring to their job as educators further compromise how likely they are to help. Many a bullied child and parent has reached out for help only to be told the student is too sensitive, or there is nothing they can do about mean girls or even athletic rites of initiation. (The national news reported on how the latter went down - felony assault charges - and a shake up of high school athletics across the nation.) The point is, school administrators can create a school community defined by mutual respect, or one defined by fear and power imbalances. The administrative leadership in a school has a greater impact on bullying, than a zero tolerance policy. Students' perceptions about a school's environment, social order, rules, safety, fairness and staff attitudes are inherently linked to bullying and victimization. In fact, a CNN study commissioned by Anderson Cooper and University of California - Davis found that 80% of students who are the victim of indirect aggression and bullying in their school (manipulation, ostracization, spreading rumors) won't turn to an adult because they believe it won't help.
But one of the biggest reasons why zero tolerance fails, is because it does not address a core issue: why students bully each other. Bullying requires three players: the bully, the victim and the bystander. Little attention has been paid to bystanders, but they play a powerful role in bullying situations. Bystanders who passively accept a bullying situation communicate their fear and acceptance of the bully's dominance and social power. In turn, this contributes to a climate of fear and and acceptance. As for the bullies themselves, they too have established a particular role and identity for themselves: it is one of long-standing aggression and dominance. Bullies do not suddenly emerge as bullies when they are older, or in high school. Bullies have been bullying since early childhood, even as early as nursery. Bullying often plays out in commonplace verbal and behavioral indignities that communicate hostility, aggression and negative messages. Young children can and do engage in this behavior at early ages.
As a result, early childhood intervention programs aimed at identifying childhood aggressors make more sense than waiting till one of them brings a stun gun to school, or hounds a peer to suicide through unrelenting social humiliation. Early educators can play a critical role in identifying young bullies, stopping them and redirecting them to more social behaviors. It is possible to prevent the progression of a young bully. Consider a scenario I read about. A group of young children sit at a table. The dominant child begins a series of questions, "Who likes cookies?" The dominant child raises his hand, and so do his followers. The child asks another question, "Who likes birthday cake?" Again, the child raises his hand, and seeing this, so do his followers. He finally asks "Who likes Sam?" (a boy who has been happily and innocently playing along.) This time, the child purposely does NOT raise his hand. And neither do the followers. Sam has been targeted as someone to be excluded; a social bully has manipulated his peers to accept this. Schools can adopt programs that teach social skills and empathy through guided activities to help young children develop the tools to stop bullying. In such a program, the other children - the critical bystanders - would have stopped the bully from excluding Sam.
Peer Leadership Programs and initiatives for older kids likewise hold the greatest hope for stopping bullying. These programs are an attempt to empower the community at large to adopt strong social skills and shift a community ethos towards one of inclusiveness. Sound Pollyann-ish? Maybe. But a whole school full of bystanders no longer remaining silent can become a potent force. As in the early childhood programs, empowering students to speak up may be more effective than suspending a school bully who will only return, potentially more vengeful than before. That same UC Davis study found that the most common form of bullying is social aggression, that students engage in a constant verbal, emotional and cyber battle in their daily school lives to rise to the top. This social combat is the stuff of which modern day bullying is made of. It no longer looks like the archetypal jock threatening to punch someone out. The UC Davis study suggests that if bystanders can shift the social norm, bullies may find themselves alone in their battle, and ultimately, less powerful.